Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Adults Review

It's been a while since I've been really into a book. Recently I downloaded a bunch of samples from amazon. I do this when I'm not sure what to read next, so I peruse a few beginnings and pick the one that grabbed me the most.

The Adults started off really well. Emily, the fourteen year old protagonist, observes her parents and their friends at her father's 50th birthday party in Connecticut. She is a funny and wry and a fairly typical young teenager but her world shifts quickly as she observes her father kissing their neighbor and later, the neighbor's husband hangs himself outside their house and Emily is the only witness. Her parents' marriage is falling apart, her father is moving to Prague and the widowed neighbor is suddenly pregnant.

In the midst of all this, Emily embarks on a sexual relationship with her 24 year old teacher that lasts from the time she is fifteen until she goes off to college. That part of the book was really interesting. Unfortunately, the story picked up again after she is out of school and living in Prague with her father, his girlfriend and her half-sister. She reconnects with her old English teacher, although now they are on more equal footing. He has his own secrets. Unfortunately, the young and witty tone that I enjoyed in the first half of the book disappeared in the second part. Emily is still lost in the world but it's not as cute as it was when she was fourteen. It's actually kind of annoying. After the the book dragged a bit for me.

It comes full circle with another "adult" party at the end, which I enjoyed, but it took too long to get there and the conclusion seemed inevitable, which was a bit boring. I can't highly recommend this book because it dragged a little too much in the second half but it was intriguing in the beginning. I'm sure other people will like it more than I did.

NY Times Review 

Buy it at amazon or Barnes & Noble 

The Sweet Life Review

Um... yeah, so I read these... I know, I know. You're probably shaking your head in horror... or grinning nostalgically. I think I felt a little of both when reading this.

Ok full disclosure. I devoured the Sweet Valley books as a kid. I was probably way too young to be reading about the 16 year old Wakefield twins and all their dramas, but I don't think my parents knew what I was reading and there was usually a new one at the library so I read a decent amount of them. I was never a serious collector, but when I had my own babysitting money, I definitely bought a lot of the later ones in order. I still remember where I was when I read the cliff hanger to A Night to Remember. I was probably in Middle School and reading much more advanced books but something kept me coming back to good old Sweet Valley. I think this was a precursor to working at Soap Opera Digest and all the ridiculous drama that goes into soaps. Obviously I stopped reading the books at some point. I got through the Margo and the evil twins stuff and a little bit of their college years but never beyond that. Every once in a while I'd google the books and see what was going on but as I grew up, I got over the whole thing.

Anyway, last year I was ridiculously excited to read Sweet Valley Confidential, which takes place ten years after the twins were juniors in high school (they were juniors for about 200 years). I read it in a day, traveling back and forth from the Berkshires to Boston. And it was awful. Really awful. Jessica, like, talked like a valley girl. She was never the smart twin but she was always savvy and didn't talk like a moron. Elizabeth cried during orgasms (it was kind of uncomfortable to read sex scenes). Jessica stole Todd (really, are there no other guys in the world?), leading to Elizabeth running to NYC to work at a crappy theater magazine. It was all so so bad. I loved it, I hated it.

I heard at one point that a sequel called Sweet Valley Heights was going to be released but then never heard anything else about it until earlier in the summer when I got an email from St. Martins Press announcing six e-book novellas, coming out once a week. Of course I immediately pre-ordered all six (a collected novel will be coming out in November, I think, and in print) and spent several Sundays this summer charging through.

On the plus side, this series was much, much better than Confidential. (SPOILERS TO FOLLOW). Jessica and Todd are still married with a two year old son, but their marriage is strained because she is a successful PR person for a green makeup company and he is super old fashioned and wants her to be home cooking for him or something. Fortunately she dropped her annoying valley girl talking habits and is old likable Jessica again. Elizabeth, on the other hand... well three years after Confidential, she is still with Bruce Patman (uh yeah, that happened in the last book), who is a hugely wealthy CEO. She's a reporter for the LA Tribune and has a popular blog. She doesn't seem to actually work too much in these books though. The twins are super close again, which is also better than the last book, but the main drama in this series is a little ridiculous (to be expected). No Margo though, sadly.

Ok so the basic plot besides Jessica's married woes is that Bruce is accused of sexually assaulting an intern at his company. Jessica rallies behind him, but Elizabeth doubts her supposed soul mate. In a nice nod to continuity, Elizabeth thinks back to that time she came out of a coma and Bruce tried to assault her. Or rape her. It was a bit vague in Dear Sister and was eventually pretty much forgotten. Anyway, she starts to doubt Bruce's side of the story, especially when she befriends the victim.

Several other major characters play a role or have their own storylines. The infamous Lila Fowler shows up, still married to NFL star Ken Matthews, and is desperate to get on Sweet Valley Housewives. So Lila is back to being flighty and obnoxious despite the growth she showed in earlier books. Oh well. She goes to some pretty desperate lengths in the series to get attention, from auditioning for the reality show to faking a pregnancy and miscarriage. Her storyline wraps up rather well, though.

Steven is now married to Aaron and they have a baby named Emma who they conceived using a surrogate. In one novella, the baby gets kidnapped (it's pretty obvious who does it) and after that Steven and Aaron's story pretty much ends. Aaron pops up again to help Elizabeth out late, though. Disturbingly baby Emma, who is about three months or something like that, has her own quasi-point of view who it's apparent that she has inherited some Jessica-like traits.

Annie Whitman plays a big role as Bruce's defense attorney and former hook up from high school. Enid Rollins pops up as the town's OBGYN. Ned and Alice barely make an appearance.

While I tore through the novellas and will definitely read other ones, they were by no means perfect. There were tons of stupid errors that a good copy editor should have caught. Jessica got off the kitchen school? Really? I caught a few others ones like that.

Also plot lines were wrapped up too tidily or dropped weirdly. Jessica and Elizabeth were annoyingly poor communicators in their relationships. Jessica gets involved with this actor named Liam who was introduced in Confidential and she basically uses him to make herself feel good when her work and personal life goes downhill. He's clearly unbalanced but she doesn't see the danger until it's too late. And Elizabeth, really? Ms. Intrepid Journalist doesn't trust her own boyfriend to be a good guy and basically ruins their whole relationship for no real reason. So that was annoying.

There were definitely other moments where I rolled my eyes. Quite a few, I think, although it's been almost two weeks since I finished part six and I can't remember everything I was thinking as I read. The series ended on a cliffhanger so I'm assuming there will be another series to pick up the pieces sooner or later.

If you were a Sweet Valley fan back in the day looking for a little light reading, this is perfect for you, especially if you can take it with a grain of salt. If you weren't a fan, you probably stopped reading this review ages ago!

NY Times coverage of Confidential and The Sweet Life 

Buy it at amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Railsea Review

This is my third China Mieville book. I read Un Lun Dun (which felt like a darker and more serious Phantom Tollbooth) and The City and the City (which in all honesty confused the crap out of me) last year. I liked Un Lun Dun much better and so when I found out that Mieville was publishing another children's book, I figured I'd like it.

Not so much. Railsea plays with the whole Moby Dick plot, except that instead of being set on the water, Railsea exists in a sort of steam punk railroad world. Everyone travels by rail only, and the world is of course referred to as the railsea, with "islands" being areas not covered in rails that are livable. The story centers around Sham ap Soorap, the doctor's apprentice on board a train called the Medes. He doesn't particularly like his apprenticeship and is much more fascinated with salvers, people who look for old or new salvage in the world, which they then sell. His train is a molar, meaning they hunt down moles, which are quite big in this world. His captain, a woman named Naphi, is hunting for a giant ivory colored mole known as Mocker-Jack.This creature is referred to as her philosophy, which she is obsessed with. They travel around the railsea, hunting moles, but always looking for Mocker-Jack.

Early on, Sham and the crew stumbles on a wrecked train, where he finds an old memory card full of pictures. In one picture, he sees a single rail. Not the jumbled crisscrossed railsea that he knows so well, but one single rail. And this, of course, kicks off the adventure.

The story itself was creative and could have been interesting had it not been for Mieville's language. The Guardian reviewed the book and praised Mieville's prose (see full review below): "Yet for all this, the book's chief glory is its prose. Every sentence is packed with wit, strange but appropriate neologisms, and jostling clusters of consonants that are there for no other reason than sheer delight in language. Some paragraphs are almost too dense, and could be quite a challenge for younger readers." I could not disagree more. Like The City and the City, I felt lost in the density of the language. He never explains what some words mean and while you can pick them up eventually continuing to read the story, it's a challenge to work out his meaning sometime. One of the reasons why I have praised young adult fantasy over the years is because I think a lot of adult fantasy tries to be "literary" and too clever and the story gets lost. Young adult fantasy tends to be much simpler and more focused on building a cool world and story. I do not know how a kid would appreciate Railsea. I think that I have quite a good imagination, but I found myself struggling to picture what was going on. I thought the start of the book dragged a bit, but the middle passed quicker and unfortunately the last 20% just dragged painfully for me.

I read a couple reviews from amazon. Most praised the book a lot but some felt the way I did:

"The concept of the story is interesting but Mieville tries to deliver too much fantasy in such a complicated way that it just lost its appeal.
What I liked: the drawings.
What I didn't like: The writing. I'm just not a fan of so complicated & weird writing. He uses the symbol `&' instead of `and' and other things that should make the writing unique but that just confused me."

"At first, Railsea was a little bit hard to get into. Though the writing is not terribly complex, Mieville uses a lot of vocabulary specific to the world he has imagined without explaining what these new words mean. For the first few chapters, I felt like I was reading a mad lib created by non-English speakers. Mieville also chooses to use quirky character names, so I felt like I was stumbling upon two or three unfamiliar words in each sentence. As I became more familiar with the vocabulary and the characters, the book became easier to read. The other thing that made this book a slow-started was the use of "&" instead of "and." This was particularly challenging when the author chose to begin a sentence with an ampersand."

Just for the record, the ampersand thing drove me crazy. I thought it was really distracting to the story. He has a part where he talks about why the ampersand is used but it still meant nothing to me but an irritation. All in all, not my favorite book. But I've already picked up something that has started off much better. Stay tuned for the review!

Here are some more positive review from the UK's The Guardian and NPR.

Buy it at amazon and Barnes and Noble.